Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The City That’s Using a Trail to Unite Its Citizens

December 11, 2014
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The City That’s Using a Trail to Unite Its Citizens
The trail connects neighborhoods, cultural districts and entertainment amenities while serving as the downtown hub for central Indiana’s vast greenway system. Max Grinnell
Why are folks in Indianapolis ditching their cars and hitting the pavement on foot?

When people think of Indianapolis, one thing probably comes to mind: the Indy 500. Americans love their cars, and Hoosiers are no exception. So what happens when you pry people away from their combustion engines and encourage them to hit the trail?

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a pedestrian and bike path that opened in May 2013, is offering an antidote to the driving frenzy that has defined one Midwest city for the past 60 years. After decades of urban renewal, benign neglect, middle-class flight and a general malaise, the eight-mile-long trail serves as a type of public-space stimulus package — generating jobs, creating conversations about public art, providing a place for school children to exercise and offering people a long, winding, linear site for contemplation.

The Cultural Trail isn’t so much a massive de novo Frederick Law Olmsted-esque vision as it is an enhancement of the existing environment. As a place for cyclists, walkers and runners, the path was created with more than 11 acres of pavers elegantly laid out on existing sidewalks and right of ways. The trail winds its way through six different cultural districts — including the funky Fountain Square that houses antique shops and a vibrant arts scene and the increasingly chic Mass Ave (Massachusetts Avenue) corridor, which is dotted with everything from the 128-year-old Stout’s Footwear to gastro pubs like Black Market. The transit and leisure function of the trail got a true shot in the arm when the Pacers Bikeshare program began in April 2014. Mirroring other bike share systems in cities like Chicago and New York, the Pacers program offers visitors access to 25 stations with a total of 250 bikes, which means that both casual and serious cyclists are well served.

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The entire project cost $63 million, with $27.5 million coming from private funding and $35.5 million from federal transportation funding. The long-term economic impact of the trail — including new construction along the right of way, job creation and real estate investment, however — is estimated to top off at $864 million.

The trail came into being via the passionate stewardship of Eugene and Marilyn Glick, Indianapolis philanthropists (both now deceased) who worked for decades on a range of projects throughout Circle City — from donating a contemporary glass collection to the Indianapolis Museum of Art to fostering leadership programs for underprivileged youths. The Glick family gave $15 million to the trail project, committing in particular to creating a two-block Peace Walk, a section of the path that honors great national humanitarians like Booker T. Washington and Jonas Salk and invites visitors to slow down and reflect.

Commenting on the Glicks’ contributions, Brian Payne, founder and president of the Cultural Trail, says, “They appreciated the commitment to beautiful landscaping along the trail, and they were both proud that all different ages, races and economic sectors would be able to use the trail and make it their own.”

Payne also speaks passionately about the broader economic transformation wrought by this avenue of conviviality. “The Fountain Square has seen the most dramatic transformation with dozens of new apartments, buildings and retail stores,” he says. Beyond private investment and real estate, there’s much more: “A YMCA fitness center and bike hub with bike storage and repair functions have been built along the trail, and there are also future plans for an exhibit created by the Indiana Historical Society,” Payne adds.

Perhaps what is most exciting about the trail is that residents and groups are utilizing it in ways that are unique and thoughtful. Andrea Hunley, principal of the Center for Inquiry at School 2, says her teachers are taking full advantage of their school’s proximity to the Cultural Trail as a way to engage students with their environment. Her students run and go biking on the trail as part of their physical education courses; the school’s world percussion ensemble hosted a drum circle; and the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms created an edible garden and seating area alongside the path.

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As schools seek new opportunities to use the trail, businesses have sought out locations that take advantage of the corridor’s cultural diversity. One such hub of activity is the Indy Reads Books outlet, which is located along the Mass Ave portion of the trail. Formally speaking, it’s a bookstore, but its mission also involves one-on-one tutoring sessions, literacy labs and ESL instruction.

The Indy Reads Books outlet was started because Margot Lacy Eccles, an Indianapolis philanthropist and supporter of the arts, asked a key question: “Are there any bookstores on the trail?” She believed there would be a symbiotic relationship between the two. The popularity of the store’s programs and the number of folks walking off the trail and into it on any given day stand as a testament to this sage idea.

Of course, some of the most compelling stories about the trail are coming from people just out doing their own thing. Carla Knopp, a local artist and explorer, uses this urban boardwalk as a place to display her latest art exhibits that she carries behind her bike in a makeshift trailer, which she calls IndyBam (Indianapolis Bike Art Messenger). “It’s perfect for subtle, spontaneous, un-orchestrated social engagements,” she says, welcoming these informal interactions with people as she takes her mobile gallery up and down the trail. In her estimation, she says, the trail should be applauded for “its ambitious scope and successful implementation.”

One of the trail’s main charms is that it encourages locals to get out and explore well-known but often overlooked corners of Indianapolis. In the past year, city residents have been utilizing these eight miles in ways that are both creative and compelling.

While the Cultural Trail is still in its infancy, it’s already changing the conversation about what the future holds for Indianapolis, and it has the potential to knit back together some of the city’s frayed and challenged neighborhoods — and that is a refreshing prospect.

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